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Celtic Cross near the Shannon River in Ireland


The Celts - Celts, a people who dominated much of western and central Europe in the 1st millennium BC, giving their language, customs, and religion to the other peoples of that area. In the 5th century Saint Patrick converted the Celts, the Iron Age invaders of Ireland, to Christianity, but many of the converts retained much of their Druidic religion. Each tribe was headed by a king and was divided by class into Druids (priests), warrior nobles, and commoners. The nobles fought on foot with swords and spears and were fond of feasting and drinking. Celtic mythology, which included earth gods, various woodland spirits, and sun deities, was particularly rich in elfin demons and tutelaries, beings that still pervade the lore of peoples of Celtic ancestry.

The Celtic cross near the Shannon River in Ireland, with its elaborate stylized relief of earth gods and woodland spirits, illustrates how the Celtic people preserved many of their Druidic beliefs. The Celtic style is marked by elliptical curves and opposing curves, spirals, and chevrons, also derived from steppe art. These elements were combined in dynamic yet balanced, intricate geometrical patterns carried out in relief, engraving, or red, yellow, blue, and green champlevé enamel on shields, swords, sheaths, helmets, bowls, and jewelry. The Celts of Ireland continued to work with traditional motifs, but, as Christianity took hold, they combined them with Christian motifs and employed their skills in the service of the church. Their carved stone crosses; intricate metal chalices, bells, and reliquaries; and magnificently illuminated liturgical books may more properly be considered Irish art.


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